(January 26, 2007, Business Standard)
When A Life Less Ordinary (Zubaan Books/ Penguin) first came out, its author, domestic worker Baby Halder, was unprepared for the kind of attention and acclaim that her biography drew. Baby Halder had lived a difficult life in rural Murshidabad. Her father was often missing; her mother walked out on the family when Baby was seven. Married when she was just 12 to an abusive husband, she had the first of her three children at the age of 13. She escaped to Delhi when she was older and worked in several households as a domestic worker before she found employment with the professor she reveres and calls ‘Tatush’, who encouraged Baby to write.
Several months after A Life Less Ordinary debuted, Baby has been relentlessly interviewed and has seen her book become a bestseller in India and elsewhere. At the Jaipur Festival, she held her own as she was mobbed by autograph-seekers and congratulated by other writers and celebrities, from Salman Rushdie to Deepti Naval. In a brief conversation, the writer who still works as a household help in Gurgaon spoke about her life, her second book and the challenges she faces.
How has writing A Life Less Ordinary changed your life?
If I hadn’t, would I be sitting here now being interviewed? After the book came out, what changed most was that I met extraordinary people. Community leaders, writers like Taslima Nasreen, they helped me, talked to me. Otherwise who has time for people like me? If I hadn’t learned to write, I would have been like all other women. Silent.
You wrote first in Bengali, but now you’re more comfortable in Hindi, and you mentioned that you want to learn English… Did language make a difference to you in your life as a writer?
I grew up in Murshidabad, and the first language I learned—Hindi came later—was Bengali. I’m seventh class pass. I loved school; I was good at my\nstudies and good in play. I remember the first poem I learned—by Rabi Thakur (Rabindranath Tagore)—I still know it by heart. My father never paid much attention to buying books. It was my teachers who gave me books. In Delhi’s homes, I often see children who hate going to school. But me, when school would shut, I would sit at home and cry. What I got from school was love, the love of friends and teachers, and the love of books.
Later, in Tatush’s house—I call my professor (Professor Prabodh Kumar, the grandson of Premchand) Tatush because he’s married to a Polish lady, and “Tatush” means “uncle” in Polish—I used to dust the books and look at the Bengali books in particular. When he saw my interest, he told me I could read them, and the first book I read was Taslima Nasreen My Girlhood. It spoke to me directly. Then he asked if I could write. I said yes, a little, in Bengali. He gave me exercise books and I started to write and write. Now, after so many years in Delhi, I am forgetting my Bengali, I know Hindi better. And I will learn English now. I want to speak for myself in this language too.
You’re writing a second book—you mentioned that you might include the stories of other women like yourself?
I thought I had finished writing, but there is more to say. And after writing the book, other women like me—and women like you—tell me their stories. I am changing as a writer; the second book will be different, I know that. And I want to read more. There is a hunger in me to read. Krishna Sobti ji had given me her ashirbaad and said she liked my book most of all after Anne Frank’s diary—I have heard of Anne Frank’s diary, but I have not read it yet, though I will soon.
After A Life Less Ordinary, do you see yourself primarily as a writer? Has the success of the biography changed you?”
I grew up in Murshidabad, and the first language I learned—Hindi came later—was Bengali. I’m seventh class pass. I loved school; I was good at my studies and good in play. I remember the first poem I learned—by Rabi Thakur (Rabindranath Tagore)—I still know it by heart. My father never paid much attention to buying books. It was my teachers who gave me books. In Delhi’s homes, I often see children who hate going to school. But me, when school would shut, I would sit at home and cry. What I got from school was love, the love of friends and teachers, and the love of books.
Has the success of the biography changed the way you see yourself–is it easier to see yourself as a writer?
[Baby, who’s had a long day, and is rushing to catch a flight, sits up, all signs of tiredness gone.] The “Baby” who existed earlier, that Baby has gone. She does not exist. There are so many women like her, who have their own stories, their own thoughts. But to know what they think, you must take time, like Tatush did with me. There is a second Baby now, and this Baby is yours. [She gestures at the journalists gathered around.] She is your creation. As for me, my story is still incomplete.